Rare 28-pound scavenger accused of killing a ton of sheep
RICH COUNTY, Utah––A wolverine alleged to have killed 18 sheep six miles west of Randolph, Utah was briefly jailed on March 11, 2022, but––instead of a lynching––got off with a warning, an escort out of the county, and a radio collar to follow his whereabouts.
What the wolverine did not get, before the story went national, was either a fair trial or a court-appointed lawyer for the indigent defendant.
Therefore, CBS News, Fox News, and most other mass media convicted the wolverine of sheep murders he probably did not commit.
Kyne Pyatt of the local Uinta County Herald much more cautiously reported that, “The animal was suspected of having killed 18 sheep in the area.”
No evidence for the crime
In truth, no one actually saw the wolverine killing any sheep at all. Neither was there any reported forensic evidence to suggest that the wolverine did anything other than what wolverines usually do, scavenging the remains of other animals wherever found.
“On March 10, 2022,” wrote Pyatt, “an aircraft piloted by personnel from USDA Wildlife Services was flying over the area and noticed an animal feeding on dead sheep. When the pilot flew closer, he confirmed it was a wolverine and contacted his supervisor, who then contacted the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.”
A Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist and a Utah Department of Agriculture trapper later that day “set up two separate barrel traps, removing all of the dead sheep from the area, and placing a sheep’s hindquarters in each of the traps,” Pyatt continued.
Trapped eating breakfast
“When the private landowner and a sheepherder checked the traps early on March 11, the hindquarters were still in the traps and there was no sign of the wolverine. Later that morning, one of the men again checked the traps, saw the door on one was closed and called Division of Wildlife Resources.
“Rich County DWR conservation officer Dakota Pray told the Herald he was the first to arrive at the traps,” said Pratt, “as the location is only six miles from his home.
“Pray said he secured the door to the trap and when the DWR biologists arrived, along with two members of Wildlife Services, they transported the trapped wolverine back to the DWR’s Ogden office. The wolverine is the first one ever to be captured by Utah biologists.”
DNA taken from the wolverine, but not from the sheep
In Ogden, Pyatt detailed, the wolverine “was sedated and then examined. Blood samples were drawn, hair samples taken, teeth checked, measurements and weight were recorded. The wolverine’s heart rate, breathing and temperature were monitored throughout the examination, and alcohol and ice were applied to its armpits and stomach to keep it cool. The wolverine was determined to be a male between three and four years old, weighing 28 pounds, and was 41 inches long — from the tip of nose to the tip of his tail.”
No mention was made, however, of any attempt to match DNA evidence from the wolverine with DNA recovered from the dead sheep.
The wolverine was released on public land on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains late that evening, “still a little loopy from the effects of the drug [used to sedate him],” Pray told Pyatt, “and he just hung around the area. So I stayed there until midnight, just to make sure the wolverine went deeper into the woods. I wanted him to get far enough away so that someone hiking wouldn’t stumble upon him, or someone with a gun would see him, get scared and shoot him. He eventually wandered off and I left.
Four Utah sightings in 2021
“The DWR biologists will be tracking the wolverine with the collar,” Pray finished. “But I promise I will check on him all the time. I do a lot of my work on horseback and I will watch for him. Capturing and watching this wolverine was the most amazing and neat experience for me.”
“Having a collar on this wolverine will teach us things about wolverines in Utah that would be impossible to learn any other way,” Utah Department of Wildlife Resources northern region wildlife manager Jim Christensen explained to NBC News.
“Four different wolverine sightings were confirmed in Utah in 2021,” Christensen said. “Were we seeing the same animal or different animals? Having a collar on this animal will help us solve that riddle.”
USDA Wildlife Services let the wolverine go
As to whether the wolverine actually killed 18 sheep, or any sheep, USDA Wildlife Services rarely hesitates to kill livestock predators, and killed 324 wolves and 63,965 coyotes in 2021 alone, none of whom individually stood accused of murdering 18 livestock animals in a single incident.
USDA Wildlife Services were on the scene where the Rich County wolverine was trapped, not far from the Idaho and Wyoming borders with Utah.
But USDA Wildlife Services is not known to have killed a wolverine since 2017.
The scarcity of wolverines in the Lower 48 states may have something to do with that: there are believed to be fewer than 300 wolverines distributed across the entire U.S. above the snowbelt, and none below.
Trump administration killed ESA listing
Wolverines have been proposed for listing as an endangered species in the Lower 48 since 2012.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found in 2013 that wolverines are eligible for listing, but actual endangered status for wolverines has repeatedly been denied, most recently by the Donald Trump administration in 2020, because of vehement opposition from ranchers, hunters, trappers, the logging industry, and the mineral extraction industry, including oil and gas drillers.
Trappers in particular have persecuted wolverines for centuries, partly because wolverine pelts fetch some of the highest prices paid for trapped fur, partly also because wolverines are intelligent enough to follow traplines, scavenging the remains of trapped animals and thereby ruining those animals’ pelts.
Explains the web site of The Wolverine Foundation, based in Bozeman, Montana, while “The wolverine is carnivorous, its food habits are weighted to scavenging.”
Says Alaska Fish & Game wildlife biologist Howard Golden, “You look at them, they’re mostly built for scavenging. But they can be more predator than scavenger if the situation allows for it.”
Alaskan hunters and trappers reportedly kill about 550 wolverines per year, or nearly twice the entire wolverine population of the Lower 48.
Affirms Wikipedia, “A majority of the wolverine’s sustenance is derived from carrion, on which it depends almost exclusively in winter and early spring. Wolverines may find carrion themselves, feed on it after [another] predator (has finished, or simply take it from another predator. Wolverines are also known to follow wolf and lynx trails, purportedly with the intent of scavenging the remains of their kills.”
High mortality from weather on sheep ranches
There is rarely any shortage of carrion on sheep ranches in the northern Rocky Mountains in late winter and early spring. USDA data indicates that sheep ranchers in the region lose about 7% of their sheep and lamb inventory per year, of whom about 4% are newborn lambs and 3% adult sheep.
Predation accounts for about 40% of the lamb losses and a third of the adult sheep losses, but the remainder die from natural causes, including adverse weather.
The temperature in Rich County, Utah had not been above freezing in five days when the wolverine was spotted from the air, with stiff winds blowing most of the time.
Despite the likelihood that the wolverine was merely taking advantage of sheep and/or lambs left dead by the weather, Wyoming Wool Growers Association director Vance Broadbent fretted to Ellen Fike of the nonprofit online Cowboy State Daily that wolverines might join wolves, pumas, and coyotes as threats to his sheep.
Caught attacking bullfeathers
Fike herself significantly exaggerated previous erroneous media reports by writing that the Rich County wolverine “was captured and collared by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources after it was caught attacking sheep.”
Said Broadbent, “Until this incident, I didn’t know the devastation they [wolverines] could wreak. It killed or injured 18 sheep over a couple of days,” none of which was either witnessed or reported by the USDA Wildlife Services and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
“Then it was relocated to the area that we use for our summer range,” complained Broadbent.
There are hints that after having been hunted and trapped to the verge of extinction in the Lower 48 in the 19th and early 20th centuries, wolverines emigrating south from Canada may at last be recolonizing some of their former habitat.
“During our last monitoring efforts five years ago, we know we had at least six individual wolverine, but there are likely more,” Wyoming Game & Fish Biologist Zack Walker told Fike.
But Walker sought to dispel any fear of wolverines driving ranchers out of business.
“They’re really solitary animals,” explained Walker. “They have very large home ranges and they’re spaced out across the landscape. Life history has made it so you never really have any congregations of them in one place.”
Breeding population on Mount Ranier
Two residents of Lewistown, Montana and a father and daughter visiting Yellowstone National Park made headlines in early March 2022, just ahead of the Rich County wolverine capture, when they captured cell phone video of lone wolverines.
Other recent wolverine sightings have come in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, where two wolverines are known to have birthed young since 2020.
Wolverines have also been seen on the Long Beach peninsula in southwestern Washington, where a wolverine was photographed walking down a road on May 20, 2020, and again photographed, eating carrion, on May 23, 2020.
In 2016 a rancher near Alexander, Wyoming shot a wolverine who had been radio-collared in Colorado in 2008.
A wolverine was also observed several times in northern California in 2010-2011, but not since then.